7Sins: #5 Confusing ‘theories of studies’ with ‘studies of theories’

Editor’s note: Today we continue our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

A serious problem in our field is a pervasive confusion between what I call “theories of studies” and “studies of theories.” What I mean by this is that what passes off as an empirical study testing theoretical propositions about genuine consumer behavior phenomena is often no more than a conceptualization of a very narrow phenomenon that is created by the study itself.

The studies that I am referring to go like this:

Past research has shown that when consumers are hungry, they tend to purchase more when they go to the supermarket. However, suppose that we prime them with either the concept of indulgence or the concept of self-control. We predict that hungry consumers primed with the concept of indulgence will purchase more than consumers who are not hungry. However, hungry consumers primed with the concept of self-control will not purchase more than consumers who are not hungry. This because … “

[You can fill in the blank]. That study might be followed-up with another study going like this: “Now suppose that half the participants are asked to remember a 7-digit number and the other half are asked to remember a 2-digit number. Now we predict a 3-way interaction showing that among participants asked to remember a 2-digit number, the results of the previous study would be replicated; in contrast, among participants asked to remember a 7-digit number, hungry participants would purchase more, regardless of whether they are primed with indulgence or self-control.”

I don’t think that this study has been done yet – and I hope that did not unintentionally describe one of our own studies here. However, you will recognize that this pair of studies has some of the qualities of what often gets published in our main journals today: (a) it leverages previous established findings; (b) it combines them in a way that has not been done before, and (c) it yields predictions that are very plausible. If the researchers are reasonably competent, (d) the studies will be conducted in a way that is free from major methodological confounds; and (e) as a result, the reviewers will have a hard time coming up with a better explanation than the one that authors propose. This is a type of paper that is not easy to reject on methodological grounds. From my own observations, it often does not get rejected on “theoretical” ground either, because the conceptualization seems logical and the data pattern is not open to obvious rival interpretations. The only way that such a paper would get rejected is if some of the reviewers are blunt enough to state that “the research is not interesting,” which most of us are generally reluctant to do, at least openly.

However, let’s have a closer look about what such a pair of studies would actually show. I don’t think that it would tell us anything meaningful and general about genuine consumer behavior. At best, what it would only show is a sound and logical explanation of a very narrow phenomenon that can only happen under the very contrived conditions that the researchers created in the lab. Any conceptual claim for such studies is just a mini-theory (with a lower case t) of the authors’ particular studies. They are the behavioral equivalent of analytical marketing models that are based on very implausible assumptions: the math may be correct, but the results tell us very little beyond the model itself.

As authors and reviewers, we need to pay more attention to this distinction and recognize when a paper consists of genuine studies of consumer relevant theories as opposed to mere “theories of studies.”

Move on to the penultimate sin…

7Sins: #4 Disregard for content

Editor’s note: Today we continue our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

Somewhat related to the preceding issue, a strongly limiting aspect of our theorizing is our almost exclusive emphasis on uncovering psychological processes, as opposed to understanding the mental contents on which these processes operate. For example, we know that consumers are more likely to learn empirical correlations among product attributes if the data are consistent with the consumers’ prior beliefs (e.g., price and quality are positively correlated) than if the data are inconsistent with their prior beliefs (e.g., price and quality are negatively correlated) (Broniarczyk & Alba, 1994). However, we do not typically ask ourselves what are consumers’ prior beliefs about correlations among product attributes. Similarly, research on affect generally tells us about when and how affective feelings are likely to be used in judgments and decisions (Pham, 2004). However, this research is largely silent about the actual content of consumers’ feelings. Likewise, recent research on consumer motivation focuses primarily on the mechanics of how consumers pursue their goals, as opposed to the content of the goals that consumers are pursuing.

In other words, in our conceptualization of consumer behavior—whether it is information processing, judgment and decision making, affect, or motivation—what seems to matter mostly to us is the process. This is why we typically use the phrase “explanation” and “process explanation” interchangeably. The actual content of consumers’ thoughts, feelings, and motives doesn’t really seem to matter.

For our field to grow in terms of relevance, it is important that we pay much more attention to issues of content. Consumer behavior is a substantive field. Attempting to explain consumption behavior without reference to the content of consumers’ motives, feelings, actions, and thoughts is extremely impoverishing. When companies or policy makers want to understand consumers, they really want to know what consumers do, what consumer think, what they want, and what they feel—that is, content. They don’t really want to know how each of these things happen, which is what we mostly focus on as a field.

While many branches of psychology also have a process orientation (e.g., cognitive psychology, social psychology, experimental psychology), we should not forget that some of the most influential theories and contributions in psychology were largely about content rather than process per se. Think of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs, Rokeach’s typology of values, Milgram’s work on obedience, Fiske and Norman’s and “Big Five” dimensions of personality, and Hofstede’s dimensions of cultural difference.

My most cited paper is a paper with Raj Raghunathan on the motivational effects of anxiety versus sadness on decision making (Raghunathan & Pham, 1999). I didn’t realize it back then, but in retrospect, the reason why this paper has some impact is because it made salient the differences between anxiety and sadness in terms of motivational content. It was Raj’s idea, not mine, to position the paper that way. Had Raj listened to my original idea, which was to position the paper as an affect-as-information paper, a more process-oriented positioning, the paper would not have had the impact that it had.

Raj also showed good taste for important content issues in his work with Rebecca Naylor and Wayne Hoyer on the “unhealthy equal tasty” intuition (Raghunathan, Naylor, and Hoyer, 2006). This paper is one of the most cited papers in JM that year. What is driving the influence of this paper is not something special about the way this particular intuition operates, it is the fact that this intuition exists in the marketplace and shapes consumption behavior substantially.

Similarly, Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008) recently conducted some field experiments to test how different forms of requests place on bathroom signs affected the likelihood that hotel guests would reuse their towels. They found that requests using social norms, such as “The majority of guests reuse their towels,” were substantially more effective than the requests frequently used by hotels. Conceptually, this paper was very simple: it was about finding out which content in terms of appeal worked better in the marketplace. Yet, the paper went on to receive JCR’s best article of award and is by far the most cited article in that journal that year.

One of the most fascinating readings about consumer psychology is an old book by Ernest Dichter (1964) called the Handbook of Consumer Motivations. Dichter, as you may know, is considered the “father of motivation research.” Yet Dichter’s approach to consumer motivation was totally different from how we study motivation today: it was all about content. Dichter was a Freudian. He believed that behind every consumption object, whether asparagus, wooden floors, perfume, or toothpaste, lies a symbolic meaning that is deeply rooted in our unconscious motives. For example, he suggested that large kitchen appliances, such as the fridge and the stove, are really surrogates for men to express their deeply rooted desire to be seen as providers for their family. This could explain why there is a strong preference for fridges and stoves that are masculine-looking (large, square-shouldered, and stainless steel). In his book, Dichter offered similar analyses for hundreds of product categories. Although one may quarrel with some of his analyses, I personally found many of them insightful and rather convincing, even though they were written some 50 years ago.  My major takeaway from Dichter’s work is that if you really want generate useful insights about consumer behavior, you really need to pay more attention to matters of content.

Therefore, I would urge us to pay more attention to the content of consumers’ thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. This is what our external constituents really need, and this is something that is likely to enhance our collective scholarly impact. Doing so requires that we suspend our search of psychological universals, and be more willing to ground our theorizing into certain consumption contexts. This is essentially what Raghunathan, Naylor, and Hoyer (2006) did in the food domain, and what Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius (2008) did in the environment-conservation-in-hotels domain. We may not necessarily want to be as granular and specific as Dichter was, but we cannot afford to be as generic as we have been. Another example is in cross-cultural consumer research, if we really want to say something meaningful about Asian or Middle-eastern consumers, we need to go beyond our broad distinction such as individualism/collectivism and capture some of the rich market and cultural content differences between say Korean consumers and Indonesian consumers or Dubai vs. Saudi Arabia.

Ready for sin #5?

7Sins: #3 Narrow epistemology

Editor’s note: Today we continue our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

relational knowledge

Our field is also too narrow in the way it defines what consumer knowledge is and how it should be generated. Most of the knowledge that we produce is of the relational type, whereby we link theoretical constructs to one another, say, expertise and depth of search, and then use these theoretical relations to explain some substantive phenomenon of interest. Within this dominant epistemic view, the primary path, by far, has been the hypothetico-deductive (or “theory-driven”) path, whereby constructs are first related to one another to generate some theoretical hypotheses, which are then tested with empirical data that are meant to capture a phenomenon of interest (Lynch et al. 2012). As summarized by Lynch et al. (2012), one of the major criticisms of this style of research is that because the primary emphasis is on testing construct-to-construct relations, the connection between the tested theoretical relations and genuine consumer behavior phenomena is often tenuous. Such papers are often criticized for being pure psychology rather than about consumer behavior. Still many of these papers continue to appear in our journals because this style of research tends to be evaluated more based on the rigor of the test than based on the interestingness or importance of the phenomenon to be explained.

hypothetico deductive path

Partly as a reaction to this criticism, there have been recent calls to pursue an alternative path to knowledge generation that is more phenomenon-driven (or effect-based) (Janiszewski 2009; Deighton et al. 2010; Lynch 2011, Park 2012). This alternative path is also relational, but it starts with empirical observations that seem to generalize, which the researchers then try to explain theoretically through a process of induction. Good examples would be research on the attraction effect (Huber, Payne, and Puto, 1982), the mere measurement effect (Morwitz, Johnson, and Schmittlein, 1993), and recent work on various embodiment effects (Hong & Sun, 2012; Lee & Schwarz, 2010). I personally find this expansion of our epistemology healthy, provided that the phenomena are robust and meaningfully related to consumer behavior, which are non-trivial caveats.

inductive path

Still, our epistemology should be expanded yet further. Whether we choose the traditional hypothetico-deductive path or the more phenomenon-driven path, most of our research is still about documenting some relation between phenomena and theoretical constructs and between constructs. Whenever such theoretical relations are missing, we usually look down at the empirical observations, disparaging them as mere “descriptions” (Alba 2012). Yet, one could argue that some of the most useful insights about consumer behavior came from studies that were essentially descriptive. Classic examples include the Hoyer (1984) observation that consumers actually do very little search when in the aisle of a supermarket, the Dickson and Sawyer (1990) finding that grocery shoppers have very poor knowledge of the products they bought, and Hauser’s findings that typical consideration sets contain between 3 and 6 product alternatives and account for most of the uncertainty in product choice (Hauser 1978; Hauser & Wernerfelt, 1990) (see Lynch, 2011 and Lynch et al. 2012). Interesting descriptive observations have also been advanced by applied consumer researchers such as Paco Underhill (2008). For example, Underhill describes the notion of a “decompression zone” when typical shoppers enter a retail store. The decompression zone is the area (both in time and space) that the consumer needs to switch mentally between the outside of the store and being ready to start shopping. According to Underhill, information that is presented within the decompression zone, is effectively tuned out by the consumer. Although I am not aware of any “scientific” test of this notion, field observations by myself and by my MBA students suggest that the phenomenon is real. This is an example finding that has enormous managerial relevance and yet is treated as having low status within our field. We need to have greater tolerance for descriptive research if it tells us something that (a) we didn’t really know about consumers, (b) is general, and (c) is useful from a substantive standpoint.

descriptive research

Another way in which I recommend that we expand our epistemology is the production of our theoretical hypotheses. When we use the hypothetico-deductive path, we usually generate the hypotheses ourselves based on our understanding of prior academic literature combined with our own substantive observations and intuitions. My impression is that we are pretty good at generating hypotheses that are logically sound and consistent with the literature. However, we are not equally good at generating hypotheses that are important from a substantive standpoint. On the other hand, there are other people who are pretty good at generating hypotheses that are important from a substantive standpoint, but not good at testing their hypotheses. The people that I am referring to are industry consultants. The marketing industry is full of consultants who generate their own “theories” about consumer behavior—theories that are tailored to be seen as relevant by corporate executives and policy makers. Yet, most of these so-called “theories” are not real theories in the sense of being supported by rigorous empirical evidence or prior scholarly literature: they are just speculations that businesses find interesting and believable. I think that these speculations are a treasure trove of interesting hypotheses that we should be willing to test as a field. Rigorous testing is something that we are very good at, much better than the industry. It is our responsibility, as a field, to verify or disprove some of these industry-generated “theories” about consumer behavior.

inspired validation

The new epistemic path that I propose, therefore, is one in which we let industry professionals generate their own relevant “theories”—in other words, we “outsource” that part—but then seize on the more popular “theories” to transform them into inspired testable hypotheses that we next submit to empirical validation. Even though we may not generate the original theory, we would still perform a very important function as consumer scientists: that of providing empirical validity to or debunking widely used “theories.” A recent but rare example of research that followed this inspired validation path is a paper by Brett Martin (2012) in JCR, in which the author tested a phenomenon first identified by Paco Underhill called the “butt-brush effect.” In his book, Underhill (1998) reported noticing that whenever a female consumer is accidentally touched from the back by another consumer while shopping, she tends to interrupt her shopping and often leaves the area. In a carefully conducted field experiment, Martin (2012) verified that it was indeed the case. I was not involved in the review process for this paper, but I am pleased that it was published because such papers need to be encouraged rather than discouraged simply on the ground that the original theory emerged from the industry.

Ready for for sin #4?

7Sins: #2 Narrow lenses

Editor’s note: Today we continue our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

Not only are the consumer topics that we choose to examine overly restricted, but the lenses that we use to examine these topics are overly thin. In the past 40 years, most of our research has been guided by cognitive and social psychology, and behavioral decision theory. Constructs that dominate our theorizing include attention, perception, categorization, information search, inference-making, cognitive responses, memory, attitudes, choice rules, heuristics and biases, and mental accounting. This type of research has produced a rather narrow and mechanical view of the consumer: “If we do X to consumers, then process P will be triggered, and outcome Y will take place. This mechanical view of the consumer fails to capture the true richness of how consumers actually operate.

concentric view of consumer behaviour

I like to think of consumer behavior theory as a series of concentric circles, each circle representing a different type of lens on consumer behavior. At the center is a mechanical core: the information processing and judgment machinery that the field has studied extensively. Outside this mechanical core is the affective layer: the feelings, moods, emotions, and affective preferences to which I have dedicated most of my research. We can think of the forces within this affective layer as shaping what happens within the mechanical core from the outside in: feelings influence judgment; mood influences memory, emotions influence time discounting, etc. Outside the affective layer is the motivational ground: this is where consumers’ goals, motives, needs, and values reside.

Again, we can think of the forces within this motivational ground as shaping what happens within the affective layer, and thereby what happens within the mechanical core. For example, the goals and needs that we have dictate to a large extent the feelings and emotions that we experience, which in turns affect how we process information and make judgments. Beyond the motivational ground, we reach the boundaries of the self, which are depicted here in yellow. The self is embedded within a social and relational context, where social influences, family membership, and social roles come into play. Finally, consumption behavior takes place within a broader cultural background that is shaped by language, norms, history, economic system, etc. Evolutionary forces can be seen as contributing to this cultural background as well. As depicted in the figure, forces from the outside layers shape the inner layers (the orange arrows), and conversely, operations of within the inner layers can affect the outside layers (the blue arrows).

This concentric view of consumer theory makes it clear that our theoretical perspectives are overly narrow, and put too much emphasis on behavioral decision theory, cognitive psychology, and social psychology (especially social cognition). Try to discuss consumer behavior with business professionals using only information processing and judgment and decision making principles, and you will soon realize how quickly they lose interest in this type of explanation. As consumer psychologists, we should be more willing to explore additional theoretical lenses, especially those that allow us to tap into the outer layers of the figure, for example, emotion theory and affect regulation research, basic motivation theory (and not just self-regulation theory), psycho-dynamic theory, role theory, personality psychology, group and family psychology, cultural psychology (and not just cross-cultural psychology), and evolutionary psychology. For example, very interesting work by Gad Saad, Vladas Griskevicius, and their colleagues is providing a very different and fresh perspective on consumer behavior using principles from evolutionary psychology. (This work is the subject of a research dialogue that is forthcoming in the July issue of JCP.)

A concentric view of consumer theory also encourages us to recognize that theories of consumer behavior are not necessarily mutually exclusive. An insidious form of the “sin of narrow lenses” in our field is an obsession with unique theoretical explanations. This obsession is often accompanied by a phenomenon that we might call “theoretical tyranny,” whereby reviewers insist that the authors differentiate their account from popular theories such as Prospect Theory, Construal Level Theory, or Regulatory Focus Theory, or re-express their findings in light of these theories.

Our obsession with unique explanation may be counterproductive for several reasons. First, many important and interesting consumption phenomena—for example, the attraction effect, self-control failures, or differences between Chinese and North-Americans in terms of food preferences—are clearly multiply determined. In fact, if a phenomenon is really uniquely determined, chances are that it is not that important to begin with (a point related to another sin discussed later). Second, many theories should be seen as complementary rather than competing in that they represent different levels of explanation. For example, a given bias in mental accounting may be driven by differences in attention to gains vs. losses, which would be a cognitive explanation. However, that attention mediates this bias does not preclude the possibility that motivational forces are also at work and direct attention to begin with, which would be a complementary motivational explanation. Third, the pressure to advance unique explanations has created a perverse incentive for authors to create artificial distinctions between their work and previous work, and an unhealthy tendency to preferentially cite work from other disciplines rather than work within our own discipline.

Finally, let’s not forget that theories are just theories. According to the Oxford dictionary, theories are “suppositions or systems of ideas intended to explain something” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2010). In other words, they are not meant to be statements of categorical truth, they are only meant to provide coherence to the phenomena that we observed. Theories are just lenses that we use to internalize and generalize empirical observations about the external world. Therefore, we should be open to the co-existence of multiple theories rather than feel the constant urge to identify a single “best” theory. A good illustration is Chaiken and Trope’s (1999) edited volume titled “Dual-Process Theories in Social Psychology,” which catalogues 20 or so dual-process theories of attitudes, person perception, stereotyping, self-regulation, etc. These 20-some theories are correlated in that they are not conceptually independent and do not yield perfectly separable predictions. Yet, they are allowed to coexist, because they each provide a useful lens on the phenomenon that they were designed to explain.

Ready to continue? Moving on to sin #3

7Sins: #1 Narrow scope

Editor’s note: Today we start our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

One of the most crippling aspects of our research comes from the limited scope of what we choose to study. We collectively identify our field as the study of “consumer behavior.” I suspect that most of us would agree with the following definition of what consumer behavior is:

The set processes by which consumers come to learn about, desire, acquire, use, and dispose of goods, services, and activities available in the marketplace to satisfy their needs.

scope of consumer behaviour

Pictorially, the scope of what we call consumer behavior looks like this: A series of stages that progress from the activation of a desire for some need-fulfilling marketplace offering, followed by processes linked to its acquisition, followed by an actual usage and consumption, and ending with the disposal or divestment of the marketplace offering.

If you look at what we study as consumer psychologists, you will find that the bulk of our research is dedicated to activities that are linked to purchasing behavior—things such as search, consideration sets, choice, persuasion, willingness to pay, etc.—as opposed to consumption behavior as a whole. In this respect, our field is more about buying behavior in particular than about consumption behavior in general. This issue not new, in 1982, Jag Sheth already noted that we need to go beyond consumer decision making and study nondecision-making aspect of consumer behavior. In fact, in the early days, the field was called “buyer behavior” rather than “consumer behavior” (Alderson, 1957; Howard & Sheth, 1969). It is only subsequently that we expanded the field’s boundaries to what they are today.

As the figure illustrates, buying behavior is only a subset of all consumption-related activities. In fact, it is a subset of the activities related to acquisition. We should not forget that important forms of acquisition are not purchase related including borrowing, product sharing, gift reception, and yes, even stealing. Except for gift-giving, very little research examines these other forms of acquisition, even though they have very large effects on business and the overall economy. For example, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, $13 billion dollars of goods are stolen from retailers every year, and one in 11 people in the US is a shoplifter.

So, why do we still focus primarily on purchasing behavior? One reason is historical. Another is a widespread belief that purchasing behavior is somehow more relevant from a managerial standpoint. Although there is truth and logic to this belief, it is somewhat misconceived. Businesses are not just interested in what makes consumers buy their products, they are also very interested in what makes consumers want (or not want) these products in the first place. Why do consumers want to renovate their kitchen? Why and when do consumers want to replace their car? Why are consumers interested in cruises as a form of vacation? What this means is that understanding consumers’ needs and desires is important in its own right. This is in sharp contrast with the way we typically frame our research questions, where we generally assume that consumers’ needs and desires are exogenous (e.g., “Assuming that you need to go on a vacation, which resort would you choose?”).

Once you recognize that consumers’ needs and desired are important in their own right, you realize that many important and fascinating questions remained to be answered. For example, when and how can fictitious needs be engineered, as the De Beers Company did with diamonds in the second half of the 20th century?  How can certain perceived needs be suppressed, such as the need to own a gun or the need to text while driving? How can under-recognized needs be activated, such as the need for safe-sex practices and hygienic food preparation?  These are questions that are theoretically rich and have genuine business and policy relevance.

Similarly, businesses are also very interested in knowing more about how products and services are actually consumed. Some of the most important consumer insights one can obtain for product innovation, improvement, and marketing is from observing, analyzing, and understanding actual usage and consumption behavior. The original idea for introducing Starbucks as a socially acceptable place where people can just hang while drinking a 4-dollar latte, came from a trip that Howard Shultz took in Italy where he got a chance to observe how Italians frequent local coffee bars. Similarly, the enormous success of Febreeze, now $1 billion brand of air freshener, was originally driven by insight gained from observing the cleaning habits of consumers in their homes. One of the most interesting insights that I gained about consumer behavior came from the one of the projects in my strategic consumer insight class. The project was for a pharmaceutical company interested in understanding why sleep-deprived consumers in western economies—and that’s about 25 percent of the population—often do not resort to sleeping aids. One of the major findings from that project was that a primary reason for this lack of consumption comes from the fact that for most consumers, the process of going to sleep is strongly ritualized. And sleeping aids do not fit into these rituals. Therefore, we clearly need to devote more attention to usage and actual consumption aspects of consumer behavior. We are beginning to see greater interest in consumption experience (Schmitt, 1999; Brakus, Schmitt, & Zarantonello, 2009) and consumption utility (Janiszewski 2009). Other important topics include pre-consumption activities (e.g., preparation, self-customization), shared consumption, consumption rituals, and product possession behavior.

Finally, we should not forget that there is also important knowledge to be gained from the disposal and divestment stage of consumer behavior. Disposal behavior, such discarding and recycling, has enormous impact on the environment; donation and reselling behavior greatly affects the economy and social welfare see Craigslist and eBay success; product divestment is a major determinant of the replacement of consumer durables; and compulsive hoarding behavior is a serious issues, especially among the elderly.

Want to read on? Sin #2 here….

The Seven Sins of Consumer Psychology

Editor’s note: This week we’re doing something a little bit different. At the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology, the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at Columbia University  really resonated with our team, so we asked him if we could publish his talk in its entirely because we felt its message should be heard much wider in the decision making science community than just those who were lucky enough to be present in San Antonio, TexasToday we publish the introduction to the talk, and from tomorrow we will publish one sin a day. Over to Michel… 

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Punam Keller Talks Field Studies: The PowerPoint

punam-590One of the most controversial topics in academic decision research (at least on the surface) is the use of field studies. Punam Keller, a veteran of field and laboratory works takes on this topic.

Punam Keller presents a nuanced view of when she believes the field adds to decision research in this PowerPoint presentation entitled: Celebrating the Absence of Fit:The Value of Field Research for Theory Development